Twenty years ahead of the curve: How JK Garments leverages innovation for success

By striving to be inclusive, while investing in tech, JK Garments continues to attract new clients, defying the verticality-allure of the East

The clothing industry is undergoing rapid change. Consumers’ lifestyles dictate a need for new and innovative products. The trend of fast fashion pushes the transition from catwalk to shop-shelf into an even quicker cycle. Brands, keen to keep up, demand shorter lead times from manufacturers. Meanwhile, less-established start-ups can capture followers through limited pieces, proliferated through social media to an Instagram-conscious user base. This all takes place as consumers become motivated ensure their choices are sustainable. For JK Garments the next five years will see them bring about solutions to the challenges the industry faces. But as they complete twenty years of business, they’ve already displayed a solid track-record of staying ahead of the curve and aim to drive growth by moving into new areas of manufacture. Innovation has been a long-running thread throughout the family business, which completed Rs2 billion revenue for the last financial year. Director & Chairman, Sarath Wijayasinghe, founded the company in 2000 amidst a tumultuous time for Sri Lankan enterprises. Not only was fierce global competition as prevalent then as it is today but, due to war-time instabilities, many were reluctant to conduct business with the island.

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Despite this Wijayasinghe identified a need for a Sri Lankan company to offer an all-in-one garment manufacturing solution to interested parties. “When we started, we never turned anyone away,” says Wijayasinghe. “We needed to offer a multi-skilled operation, otherwise buyers would simply switch to another supplier. We needed to not only develop ourselves as a company, but we took it as an opportunity to develop the local industry.” Soon JK Garments moved into supplying not only large-scale brands. They sought a way to facilitate lower-volume, high-value orders. It led to investment in new technology, new equipment and new methods whilst continually training their staff overseas. Despite being a comparatively smaller player themselves, their efforts to pioneer the method of sublimation printing led to their ability to cater towards both low-volume and large-scale orders.

With ambitious plans to continue their growth of 10% year-on-year, JK Garments are continuing to look at the latest ways to drive innovation within their industry. Sarath Wijayasinghe’s sons, Isuru and Tharanga, are both actively involved in these future-proofing efforts. Together, the three are leading the charge into the new decade. But, taking a leaf out of their past, they’re keen to not leave smaller clients behind.

“We attract many new brands due to our low MOQs”, says Tharanga Wijayasinghe. “A lot of entrepreneurs are shunned by some of the larger manufacturers today, a result of an aversion to small, new business.” JK Garments have created specialised development teams.

These teams are designed to cultivate start-ups in clothing and fashion; they guide newcomers through the entire process.

“Gradually we help these brands grow, and as a result, they’ve stuck with us, some even planning their next 5+ years of production with our teams.”

With 2,100 employees across two factories, and plans to add more in the near future, JK Garments are keen to use the next decade to improve upon their strengths. But there are still challenges to be faced within the industry. One perceived barrier to success is the verticality offered by China, who can offer reduced lead-times. This is partly down to the availability of fabrics and accessories within China. To counter this, JK Garments is maintaining inventory of fabric and other raw materials. And by keeping processes in-house, lead-time is minimised to maintain a competitive edge.

Although the jury may still be out regarding the application of automation in some of the trendier styles of garment manufacture, it’s something that is being seriously considered as a key player for the future of the company. “If the products are basic, such as T-shirts and trousers, automation will certainly play a big part for us,” says Isuru Wijayasinghe. “We’re seeing substantial growth from the Athleisure segment (garments that can be worn casually as well as for athletic purposes) – in fact, the majority of new clients come to us for our ability to produce such.
But it’s hard to automate the manufacture of these figure-hugging and fitted items.” Instead, Wijayasinghe points towards other technologies that JK Garments are championing as the future. These include seamless bonding for sportswear – a process already in place at JK Garments – and the burgeoning demand for wearable tech that they are already exploring. Sustainability is also at the heart of satisfying consumer demands. Today, it plays a big part in winning contracts. “It’s a twofold operation,” says Tharanga Wijayasinghe. He, like his brother and father, is an engineer by trade. But, with a specialisation in energy from waste, he’s a key driver of sustainability within the company.

“Our factories have solar panels which generate 60% of the energy demands needed, and we plan to increase that number to over 75% next year. But we’re seeing a lot of growth from our sustainable products themselves.” Having focused on smaller and medium-sized clients who are in need of a competitive edge to get ahead in the market, JK Garments has seen significant demand stem from their sustainable product offerings. This is something which they predict will determine the future of the industry.

“From recycled polyester to plastic bottles that can be transformed into t-shirts, we’ve developed a lot of “green” fabric and accessories. It’s all a part of driving towards a carbon-neutral future for the company,” says Tharanga Wijayasinghe. With an ambitious growth target ahead of JK Garments, it seems that the new decade of business will continue to be about staying ahead of the curve, just as the last twenty years have been. And, with a solid roadmap in place, the signs for success look favourable.